Doctor's Note – Issue 13 – Toilet Paper Madness

In this issue: A Tipping Point For Remote Working And Learning / Toilet Paper Madness / What’s Really Holding Women Back / The Linkhole / Books 

Welcome to Issue 13 of Doctor’s Note, which I hope is not an unlucky number. There’s a lot in this issues, so I’ll get stuck in. If you were forwarded this by a friend, you can sign up here.

Remote work and learning in the age of Corona

It seems there is no escaping reports of the inexplicably one-word coronavirus (COVID–19). Many organisations are telling their workers to switch to remote working, including 7,000 GPs (MDs) in the UK. An interesting round-up of studies in a recent Forbes piece by William Arruda landed on what I also suspect — this may provide a tipping point for remote working. Arruda’s piece quotes a study from Owl Labs in which they found “34% of U.S. workers would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely” and that “remote workers say they’re happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site workers.”

I think two things may collide here. The first, as Arruda argues, is that workers and their managers will get used to the idea that working remotely is not only possible, but often offers a quality of life improvement. They may not want to go back.

The second reminds me of when the Stern Review came out back in 2006 (2006! We’ve really been asleep at the wheel) and was the first big report to put climate change in terms of economic gains and losses. Companies weighing up loss revenue if a COVID–19 infection breaks out has trumped the (usually misguided) anxiety that employees won’t work if you’re not watching over their shoulders all the time — a tacit admission that the work is unfulfilling and therefore people need to be coerced into doing it. 

The reality of remote working is often the opposite — you really need to make sure employees take time off. Maybe this will add to a final shift in what seems to be a dying big corporate culture. 

Remote working has to be intentional for everyone involved, especially those in a face-to-face meeting with people dialling in. I suspect a swathe of people who haven’t really appreciated that are about to experience how dreadful their companies’ remote “spaces” are and will be more receptive to requests for improvement. 

Make use of the strengths of remote

Now for a light advertorial. I’ve been teaching online since 1998 and have a lot of experience in what works and doesn’t. I’ve run fully remote as well as blended workshops, training and coaching. Platforms like Zoom, Mural and Miro make real-time sessions a lot easier, but one of the advantages of online that is often overlooked is asynchronous interaction

Face-to-face workshops tend to favour those whose mother tongue is the workshop language, who are verbal extroverts, and who can block out time and travel for a day or two. Splitting a full-day face-to-face workshop across several remote sessions, for example, allows people time to think, reflect, read, do, translate. Participants can respond when they want, fit videos and readings around their day, and process and respond in their own time.

This is hugely helpful for more introverted people, for those who need to look up language, or those who have childcare or other life needs. But everyone tends to benefit from taking time to think and reflect.

I’m tailoring the majority of my material to work online as well as face-to-face, for both self-directed learning and facilitated real-time sessions. I can set up either a Slack group (near real-time again, though) or message boards for client teams.

Message boards might sound old-school, but they’re a powerful medium for discussion — think of StackOverflow, Reddit and Slashdot. You get a much better organised record of the discussion than in a Slack channel and they’re generally accessible within corporate networks on company machines.

If you’re interested in me training and coaching you or your teams remotely, please get in touch

Stop the panic buying

I was shocked by the irrationality of the normally very rational Germans this week. In my supermarket, like so many others, there was a run on toilet paper and non-perishable goods. Here’s some good advice if you’re tempted. Short version: don’t. You’ll just create the scenario you’re trying to mitigate for. It’s a classic systems problem.

Just to put all the panic buying of toilet paper and masks in perspective, annual influenza epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory deaths per year. 

COVID-19 is more serious as an illness in itself, but as of writing there have been 105,559 reported cases, 3,555 deaths and 58,354 who have recovered, according to John Hopkins CSSE. Here’s straightforward advice from the WHO

Update: It's been pointed out that my comparison to influenza numbers might mislead people into thinking COVID-19 is not as bad. That wasn't my point — fatality rates, though hard to estimate accurately, are higher, for one. My italics on “is more serious” weren’t emphatic enough.

My point was that the social (media) contagion isn't helping at all and makes things worse. Panic stockpiling will put those who actually need them and can't go out and stockpile (those in or close to poverty, the sick and aged) at risk. And it's causing a shortage of face-masks for health workers who actually need them. More here and here.

A bad time for airlines

I’m predicting that the compound effects of COVID-19 and concerns about climate change are going to also mean people are forced to choose alternative transport methods and come to like them. I travel by train as much as I can within Europe (including to the now-not-in-the-EU UK).

Flybe blamed the coronavirus as the last straw causing its collapse. And Lufthansa have reduced flights while Norwegian Airlines’ shares plummeted. Meanwhile, Boeing can’t get its act together at all. 

It’s not a good time to be in the air-travel business.

Workplaces need to change, not women

It’s International Women’s Day today and one of the best pieces I’ve read all week about the structural gender inequality of workplaces was the transcript of HBR’s IdeaCast podcast with Michelle King, Director of inclusion at Netflix and host of her own podcast The Fix. She’s also a Kiwi, as I discovered when I listened to it later. I’m starting to think New Zealander’s should just run the world for everyone.

I was never fully sold on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy, which seemed to come from a position of extreme privilege and didn’t match with what I saw happening to smart female colleagues. Michelle Obama was pretty blunt about her opinion of it and Ruth Whippman wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times recently about how “the assertiveness movement has taken a male-defined value system and sold it back to us as feminism.”

The part I enjoyed most from Michelle King’s interview was the concept of asking leaders to “disrupt their own denial.” I was glad she talked about race, too, but there are many more ways to “other” people. She told a story from her HR days of a woman who was eminently qualified to move into senior management being knocked back with ambiguous arguments from male leadership that essentially boiled down to, “she’s not one of us.”

And in that moment, I advocated, I asked why, I asked what does this have to do with her performance. And they decided to hire her, not hire her, sorry, promote her, but it was a sort of hollow victory because now she had to work with people who didn’t really believe she was quite right, and quite sort of fitted in. And the CFO promoted her, but as he did he said, well, she’s my diversity kind of achievement for the year. And it was just that throwaway comment that immediately delegitimized her amongst her peers.

King also discussed micro-agressions, something that people of colour experience on a daily basis too. It made me think of these as “micro-barriers” (because barriers are often acts of aggression too). “Micro” barriers from the point of view of those putting them there, of course, since they are on the advantageous side of that structural privilege, making complaints about those barriers easy to dismiss. But the cumulation can prove to be insurmountable and exhausting. It only takes a small barrier to stall someone’s career completely, especially if it makes them feel like they’re stuck in Groundhog Day.

Have a listen to the whole thing.

(Hat tip to Marie-Clare Fenech who shared it on LinkedIn).

As an accompaniment to the above, What’s Really Holding Women Back?, also on HBR, describes a revealing study by Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic debunking persistent myths of women’s lack of career advancement. The findings are an indictment of leadership in denial, even in the face of strong data. They conclude that this is really a problem of workism and that is affecting everyone, not just women. A couple of choice quotes:

All this led us to what we felt was an inescapable conclusion: For the firm to address its gender problem, it would have to address its long-hours problem. And the way to start would be to stop overselling and overdelivering.


Our findings align with a growing consensus among gender scholars: What holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture.

Yes indeed.

The Circular Economy and Human-Centred Design

I had a slightly testy Twitter exchange with Andy Budd and Jared Spool the other day about the notion that human-centred design needs to move on from being human-centric.

It was triggered by Gerry McGovern tweeting a provocative article by Jussi Pasanen with the title Human centred design considered harmful. I don’t fully agree with Pasanen’s position, but redefining human-centred design was at the heart of the Life-Centred Design Fjord Trend that I co-wrote. 

Andy threw down the Twitter gauntlet:

“Moaning about stuff folks can’t change on twitter and making them feel bad about their life choices isn’t going to help, even if it make you feel better because you’re “doing something”. So what practical and actionable thing are you suggesting folks actually do?” 

So I suggested a few things in response:

  1. I’ve already written quite a lot about this. From a digital and service design perspective, re-thinking the criteria and values in the classic feasible, desirable, viable Venn is important.

  2. As is ensuring circularity/sustainability/social impact is embedded in methods all the way through the process. If you don’t capture data and flow it through, it’ll never end up in conversations and concepts and in the world.

  3. Thinking in terms of systems, ecosystems and services instead of products is essential. That forces you to map out and consider context and unintended consequences. More on those different levels of zoom here.

  4. Build in time to reflect and reconsider broadly and longer term in sprint cycles (I’m not taking retros). More on that here.

  5. Red team for unintended consequences, social and environmental impact.

  6. Design for off-boarding and work backwards as detailed by @mrmacleod in Ends.

So that’s a start. Send me your thoughts — Twitter is a poor vehicle for complex arguments.

The Linkhole


I’ve been enjoying:

Masks up

That’s it for this issue. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up

You might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of “zoom” and mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me from a broad range of disciplines.